As protests against the Iranian regime escalate yet again, will the US stand against the totalitarian theocrats in Tehran or continue to appease them?
For the third time in just over a decade, the Iranian people are bravely protesting against their dictatorial regime and the indignities it forces upon them. In June 2009, the Green Movement erupted in Tehran after a widely-disputed election returned the regime-approved favorite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. The next day, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to register their dissent and contest the (likely bogus) election results; the protestors were angry about the state of the economy, the regime’s costly foreign adventurism, and the clear disregard for the will of the people. Students, middle-class workers, and young people drove the movement, which lasted through the end of 2009. In news that wouldn’t shock anyone, the protests were brutally repressed, with thousands of arrests, hundreds of killings, and televised show trials reminiscent of the Stalin era.
Ten years later, anti-regime protests broke out again, this time triggered by an “abrupt increase of at least 50 percent in gasoline prices.” The protestors were mainly lower-class young men who were frustrated by high unemployment and lack of economic opportunity, some of which was exacerbated by American sanctions on the country due to its nuclear program and support of terrorism. Using the 2009 playbook, in which protests were coordinated and anti-regime anger spread via the Internet, the 2019 movement proliferated rapidly across the country in just a few days. Demonstrations erupted in 29 of Iran’s 31 provinces, showing significant cracks in the Islamic regime’s traditional power base. Still, these protests were put down as harshly as were those in 2009; the government cracked down hard on demonstrators, using lethal force and detaining thousands. In just 4 days in November 2019, the regime killed 321 civilians in its forceful response to the anti-government sentiment.
Now, just a few years later, massive anti-regime protests have once again arisen in Iran. As in 2009 and 2019, they have spread like wildfire, with sizeable demonstrations cropping up across the country. But will they end in the same way, with the regime still empowered after crushing a nascent democratic movement? Or will this time be different? Much of the answer relies on the specific nature of these protests, as well as the Western (read: American) response.
This round of protests, by some estimations the biggest since the 1979 Revolution, was sparked by the death in police custody of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Amini, who was arrested by Iran’s ‘morality police’ for the ‘crime’ of “inappropriate hijab.” The authorities claim she died of a heart attack, but her family disputes this and says she was in good health before her arrest. The hijab law, in effect since 1981, is widely unpopular and is viewed by many Iranians as an unwelcome reminder of the totalitarian theocracy they find themselves living under. The death ignited a powder keg of anti-regime sentiment, bolstered by the poor economy, rising inflation, systemic corruption, a lack of freedom, and wasteful foreign interventionism. The protests have expanded quickly throughout the country (see map above), from Tehran to the outlying regions of Iran, where ethnic minorities seem especially fed up with the government.
Still, the inciting event – Ms. Amini’s likely killing at the hands of Iranian police – has lent a different character to these demonstrations: a profoundly female one. Many of the current protests are being led by women who are the most at risk from the oppressive policies of the theocratic regime. They are perhaps the most repressed group in Iranian society, with prohibitions on their dress, actions, and basic human rights. Yet tens of thousands of these women are braving the brutality of their own government to express their hatred of that very regime. And the brutality is already evident; dozens have been killed in the government response, and more is coming, as Iran’s leader Ebrahim Raisi has promised to “deal decisively” with the unrest. The videos coming out of Iran have been incredible to see, including some which show demonstrators fighting off armed regime thugs and forcing them back. The ones below are representative of the scope of the movement, one which is clearly a serious threat to the theocratic regime.
Obviously, we should be fully supporting the Iranian people in pushing their repressive government to respect the personal liberty we all possess as an innate right. So far, there has been some positive rhetoric from politicians and the administration, but this is not and has never been enough. Despite the significant shifts in Iran policy over the last three presidential administrations (Biden, Trump, Obama), one thing has been constant – the lack of real support for the courageous Iranians who stood up to their government. Each President has had the chance to clearly, consistently, and credibly stand with the Iranian people against their government, but none thus far has done so effectively. Obama failed to act in 2009, as he sought a major diplomatic reset in the Middle East, one which placed Iran in pole position as the biggest regional power. He placed his own misguided foreign policy goals over the basic rights of Iranians, something which seems to be echoing in the current administration. Although the Trump team often had better policy towards Iran – sanctions, pressure, ostracization – the man himself was the paragon of inconsistency and idiocy. As such, the United States was not seen as a credible backer of the Iranian people and any serious involvement on their behalf could be played for the regime’s benefit. All of these politicians on both sides of the aisle deserve approbation for their failures. But will the Biden administration change course? Two recent events suggest that is unfortunately unlikely.
The first concerning event with respect to how the Biden administration may approach the Iranian uprising came just this week, with the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meeting in New York City. As you may know, I’m not exactly a huge fan of the United Nations, and UNGA is one of my least favorite events of the year. At this meeting of all the world’s nations, evil totalitarians are given the same respect and deference as are democratic leaders, and are allowed to address the world directly without interruption. That brings us to the events of this week, where Iran’s so-called President, Ebrahim Raisi, addressed the assembly. Raisi himself is an evil man and a serial human rights abuser, having been in charge of the torture and murder of thousands of dissidents in the 1980s. He is, as discovered during his softball interview with 60 Minutes (why the hell did they interview him?!), also a Holocaust denier, something he shares with the Ayatollah. His address itself was replete with whataboutism, false analogies, slanders on the regime’s enemies, and even a tribute to the late IRGC terrorist leader Qassem Soleimani, who now only exists as a smear on a Baghdad airport road thanks to the good old US of A.
Raisi’s speech was abhorrent, yet the American delegation did not walk out of the room, nor did President Biden cancel his later speech at the same podium. But all of that is besides the point. Why in the hell did we even allow Raisi into the country to gain such a prominent platform as the equal of the American president? The US has the whip hand in terms of the UN – it is on New York’s east side, after all – but we always seem far too reluctant to use it. We should never allow a dictator who hates us and is in the process of murdering his own people to enter the country, much less allow him to speak his lies at the UN. The Biden administration should have denied Raisi and other Iranian leaders who are directly involved in suppressing the current protests entry visas and forced them to either address the conference virtually or not at all. (Frankly, we should probably kick the UN out of Manhattan and the country entirely, but that’s an issue for another post.) The fact that we allowed this despicable address at all does not bode well for our response to these protests.
The other factor that is concerning to those who wish for the administration to boldly and fully support the Iranian protestors, is the Biden team’s intense desire to rebuild the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (also known as the JCPOA). I’ve written about their obsession with re-entering the deal before, but things have only escalated on the capitulation front since then. Over the past year and a half, the Biden administration has been singularly focused on appeasing Iran and getting it to rejoin the nuclear pact which was ended a few years back due to Iran’s noncompliance and the terrible terms of the deal. The negotiations have started and stopped several times over that period, but the US has seemed like the party desperate for a deal – any deal – while the Iranians have continued to make progress on building their nuclear weapons program. Now, Raisi and other Iranian leaders have baldly stated that they require “guarantees” from the US before any deal is made, which is a ridiculous request coming from a pariah state. Still, the Biden administration may be desperate enough to take them up on that offer.
Why are we still engaging in any sort of negotiations whatsoever with these totalitarian lunatics? Not only have they threatened the US and Israel with nuclear weapons – which is the clear purpose of their “peaceful” nuclear program – they have continued to fight against us and our friends abroad. The Iranian regime is one of the world’s most prolific sponsors of terrorism, and is working to train and equip Hezbollah operatives in the Western Hemisphere, a danger to the homeland and a direct slap in our face. Iran supports terrorists who fight against Israel both within and outside its borders, groups that have killed Americans in the past. Besides these actions promoting terrorist violence, Iran is also now supplying the Russian war effort in Ukraine with drones, ammunition, and other materiel. If the Biden team cares so much about the fate of the Ukrainian people in their existential fight against Russian invaders, he should stop dealing with one of Russia’s biggest boosters. The administration talks a big game about democracy and human rights, yet is currently trying to gift Iran – a government which is in the middle of a harsh crackdown on pro-democracy protestors – with a legal nuclear weapons program. In continuing on the path of appeasement in order to gain the fig leaf of a useless nuclear deal, we’re failing to confront a horrific dictatorship at a time of weakness. If the JCPOA negotiations are any guide, the Biden team’s response to these courageous protests will be spineless and weak.
Despite these negative indicators, the Biden administration may still be able to succeed where its predecessors have failed in supporting the Iranian people against their theocratic regime. What steps, besides strong rhetoric, would fit the bill?
First, the negotiations over the nuclear deal must end. We cannot in good conscience negotiate with a regime that is in the process of massacring its own people for the ‘crime’ of dissent, and we especially cannot allow that regime a nuclear weapon free and clear. Ending negotiations isn’t enough, however. We need to stop the Iranian program in its tracks. That means supporting the Israelis in their very successful campaign against Iran’s nuclear capacity, as well as working to sabotage it ourselves a la the Stuxnet virus.
Other than cutting off the nuclear negotiations, we must return to the successful Iran policy of the last administration – maximum pressure. We should level punishing sanctions on Iran’s leaders, economy, and industry; they should cement Iran as the international pariah it is and make trading with it immensely difficult. We should be using our covert and cyber operations skills to undermine the regime and its ability to repress Iranian civilians. Targeted assassinations, along the lines of the drone strike which killed Soleimani, should be on the table for any Iranian official who coordinates this oppression.
We must also work to aid the demonstrators themselves, by sharing their message widely in media and with our allies, as well as by engaging in more concrete measures. That includes using Starlink, Elon Musk’s space-based internet provider, to go around Iran’s internet shutdowns and allow dissidents to continue to access information and spread videos and testimonies from the protests. Starlink has worked wonders in Ukraine during its brave resistance against the Russian invader, and we should port that strategy over to Iran. We should be pushing for international observers to enter Iran and report on the civil rights abuses of the regime; even when those requests are denied (as they certainly will be), the denial itself works to indict the regime. Finally, we must offer asylum to the refugees who are being persecuted for exercising basic freedoms and are able to flee from the totalitarian horror in Iran. America has always been a beacon of hope for oppressed peoples, and we can put our money where our mouth is here by taking in those who seek refuge from the mullahs.
This may be an uphill battle given how deferential the Biden team has been to the Iranian regime, but it is worth the try. The bravery of the Iranian protestors deserves no less. We failed twice already, but maybe the third time’s the charm.